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  • Writer's pictureSaleem Qamar Butt

Trump’s Exceptionalism Threatening Global Institutions, Democracy and US Credibility

“[American exceptionalism] is a reaction to the inability of people to understand global complexity or important issues like American energy dependency. Therefore, they search for simplistic sources of comfort and clarity. And the people that they are now selecting to be, so to speak, the spokespersons of their anxieties are, in most cases, stunningly ignorant.” - Zbigniew Brzezinski.

The simplest definition of National Interest I ever read was in a book by former CIA Deputy Director Mr. Michael Morrell, who defined it as “security and well being of our people…..”. In order to pursue so defined national interest, USA after decades of civil wars, internal strife and two great wars, had constructed a system of governance based on democratic norms and high moral values, the glimpses of which one can see in a popular TV show, “Designated Survivor”….. depicting a US president who stands by highest moral standards in adverse challenges….though looks illusory especially when compared with the state of affairs associated with USA in the last two years of Trump’s presidency that is trying to float on the pre-elections slogan of America First or Exceptionalism that is based on the belief that something is exceptional, especially the theory that the peaceful capitalism of the US constitutes an exception to the general economic laws governing national historical development.

According to some Western analysts, democracy is under attack around the globe and authoritarian governments are gaining power, right-wing demagogues are gaining strength, movements toward openness and pluralism have stalled, inequality is growing and wealthy elites are transforming rule by the people into rule by them. Ironically, USA that always stood for unity through acceptance of diversification; however, many people out there now appear to accept the politics of dissection and hatred. An alarming trend was just witnessed before, during and after the November 2018 midterm US elections where majority of white votes went to Trump’s Republican Party and Majority of Latinos, Afro-Asian-American votes to opposition Democrats who regained majority in the House of Representatives after 8 years.

American rise and staying as a super power after WW-II was based on constructing an international liberal order with foundations laid on democratic principles, committed to civil and human rights, accountable to citizens, bound by the rule of law, and focused on economic prosperity for all. But in recent decades, Washington’s focus has shifted from policies that benefit everyone to policies that benefit a handful of elites. After the Cold War, U.S. policymakers started to believe that because democracy had outlasted communism, it would be simple to build democracy anywhere and everywhere. They began to export a particular brand of capitalism, one that involved weak regulations, low taxes on the wealthy, and policies favoring multinational corporations. And the United States took on a series of seemingly endless wars, engaging in conflicts with mistaken or uncertain objectives and no obvious path to completion (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Syria)__ a negative syndrome, which afflicted budding democracies with fatal consequences with global ramifications leaving working middle class quite desperate. US’ endeavors to maintain and further prop up own security have been at the cost of massive resource spending and destabilization of many regions with new challenges to its technological superiority by competitors like China, Japan, Germany, South Africa and Russia. Inequality has grown worldwide, contributing to an unfolding nationalist backlash that seeks to upend democracy itself. It is little wonder that the American people have less faith in their government today than at any other time in modern U.S. history.

President John F. Kennedy once wrote that “a nation can be no stronger abroad than she is at home”; hence, American domestic and foreign policies cannot be divorced and need to work hand in glove, without stepping on toes of other nations. USA needs to allow the globalization work as had been manifested successfully through WTO, IMF, World Bank (but without colonial practices) and other international institutions including UNO ensuring well being and security of its own people as well as rest of the world without jumping on to purported Exceptionalism or ultra nationalism, which has been termed as anti-thesis to democracy and patriotism by many leaders of the democratic world. Rejection of Trans-Pacific and Trans-Atlantic partnership, squeezing NAFTA, coercing NATO and EU may result in a boomerang effect not for US alone but for all regions. The United States’ economic policies must also reflect the realities of the twenty-first century i.e. to address corruption, it is critical to work closely with allies to necessitate transparency about the movement of assets across borders. To make progress on global climate change, USA may leverage foreign countries’ desire for access to U.S. markets as an opportunity to insist on meaningful environmental protections. The world expects US to show leadership quality by playing a lead role in resolving international disputes like Palestine and Kashmir in sync with UNO efforts, notwithstanding US honeymoon with Israel and India.

As for security domain, US must end seemingly endless wars and military interventions abroad like in Afghanistan in a calibrated manner instead of leaving vacuums, which may be filled by anti-democratic forces. In the words of an American Congressman, “We’ve “turned the corner” in Afghanistan so many times that it seems we’re now going in circles. After years of constant war, Afghanistan hardly resembles a functioning state, and both poppy production and the Taliban are again on the rise. The invasion of Iraq destabilized and fragmented the Middle East, creating enormous suffering and precipitating the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. The region remains a tangled mess—the promise of the Arab Spring crushed, Iran emboldened, Syria devastated, the Islamic State (or ISIS) and its offshoots stubbornly resilient, and a massive refugee crisis threatening to destabilize Europe. Neither military nor civilian policymakers seem capable of defining success, but surely this is not it.” The human cost of these wars has been staggering: more than 6,900 killed in Afghanistan and Iraq, another 52,000 wounded, and many more who live every day with the invisible scars of war; and with unbearable over a trillion dollars economic cost. Despite extraordinarily high costs, these wars have not succeeded even on their own terms. The United States will spend more than $700 billion on defense in the 2018–19 fiscal year alone. That is more in real terms than was spent under President Ronald Reagan during the Cold War and more than all the rest of the country’s discretionary budget put together. But even as Washington spends more and more, U.S. military leaders point out that funding a muscular military without robust diplomacy, economic statecraft, support for civil society, and development assistance only hamstrings American national power and undercuts any military gains. US State Department seriously understaffed and under resourced especially with respect to USAID funding is finding it hard to effectively implement soft prong of diplomacy.

The United States spends only about one percent of its federal budget on foreign aid. The world is a big, complicated place, and not even the strongest nation can solve everything on its own. As US will continue to face down antidemocratic forces around the world, America will need her tested allies on her side. In order to remain credible in the eyes of old and new strategic partner, US must honour its commitment with Strategic Counter terrorism partner like Pakistan, which is facing serious economic crunch due to her leading successful role in War against terrorism that caused back breaking economic loss of over US $ 120 billion; and needs to be immediately paid overdue Coalition Support Fund, besides assistance through global financial institutions like World Bank and IMF on relaxed terms, Foreign Direct Investments and better environment for exports from Pakistan instead of continuous application of baseless allegations as pressure tactics. Pakistan is as much justified in ensuring well being and security of its own people as much America is entitled to ensuring her own. Trump’s letter to Pakistan’s Prime Minister seeking help for successful dialogue with Afghan Taliban and political settlement of long lingering Afghan conundrum must be backed up by US or else linked up by Pakistan with significant economic relief coming from USA as a compensation for greatest sacrifices rendered for a global cause.

4th Dec 2018

Saleem Qamar Butt, SI (M) is a senior retired Army officer with rich experience in Military & Intelligence Diplomacy and Strategic Analysis. (

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